Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Pathetic Theology

"Two things we want out of life are..." I'm postmodern enough to know that I shouldn't trust any sentences that begin like that.

Rollins talks about needing to "joyously affirm the brokenness of our lives". Why? Because the good news of Christianity is that "you can't be satisfied, life is rubbish, we don't know the secret." It would be wrong to say that Rollins is "unbiblical" at this point, because Ecclesiastes is in the Bible. Still, Qoholeth calls these pieces of news "absurd" or "vanity" or "meaningless" as opposed to "good".

This is a contemporary case of tragic theology, or pathetic (from the Greek pathos) theology. David Hart unleashes a stinging critique of it in The Beauty of the Infinite and in an essay entitled No Shadow of Turning. I don't know which side I come down on. One proclaims that God cannot suffer if He is to be God; indeed, that God's impassibility is integral to the good news of Christianity. The other proclaims that God must suffer if He is to be God, and that in this divine suffering lies the heart of the gospel. "God suffers with you" are the words of comfort offered to the grieving. This, it should be clear, is no abstract theological matter.

I don't know what deep suffering -- the kind of suffering that can't be made sense of -- feels like. But I'm sceptical about whether joyously affirming the brokenness of our lives is a sufficiently Christian response to it. In fact, I'm sceptical about whether "response" is even the right word, because it seems to give suffering the first word, with the Christian faith (its speech and practices) then being some kind of coping mechanism for the "human condition" (which is precisely the understanding of Christianity that Rollins wants to do away with). 

The problem I see in Rollins's theology is, ironically, the problem with much conservative theology: it does not know what to do with the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus didn't go around joyously affirming brokenness. He went around making it whole. He did embrace brokenness, but not as one who saw the good in it. He embraced it so as to heal it.

I watched a film called The Sweet Hereafter a few days ago. It is an exceptional piece of work, centred around the tragedy of a school bus crash in rural Canada. A lawyer is on the scene, looking to make sense of the tragedy by finding someone to blame and sue. He tries to rally some of the townspeople, and eventually gets around to visiting a father whose two children died in the crash.

MITCHELL: I'm here about your children, Mr.Ansel. My name is...  
BILLY: Mister, I don't want to know your name.

MITCHELL: I understand. 
BILLY: No you don't.

MITCHELL: I can help you. 
BILLY: Not unless you can raise the dead.

One can imagine that if this scene was in one of the Gospels, with Jesus playing the role of Mitchell, he would ask Billy where his children were buried, go to that place, and call them out of their coffins.

What is the church supposed to say and do in light of a Jesus like that?


  1. Interesting two cents and I could well be wrong:

    There seems to be a 'fall narrative' within Rollins' work that implies we need to be liberated from 'classical theism' that itself has been distorted by Hellenistic thought. That distortion includes an impassible God.
    Moltmann goes this direction in some of his work on the suffering of the Father.

    Depends on what impassible means though. My understanding is that church fathers did not take it to mean indifference but to safeguard divine transcendance and God being domesticated.God could not controlled or affected outside his will by an outside source.

    So Rollins (as an example) has this sort of liberation narrative going on. I think it is way overplayed. Christians have hope in the deepest of sufferings not because we don't know the answers or life sucks (who knew?), but because Jesus' sufferings (pathe) were overcome in the power of the Spirit. And his resurrection leads to impassibility.

  2. Thanks, Patrick. Your understanding of Patristic teaching on impassibility is also shared by Hart - God as impassible does not make him a loveless being, but a Being (and indeed the ground of all being outside of Himself) whose very nature is always already love. For Hart, impassibility is not only a safeguard to some other truths about God; he sees impassibility itself as central to the gospel.

    I think you're right about "the fall of theology" narrative. Brueggemann is an advocate of just such a narrative, but as you say, it is overplayed. The same people who would be more than happy to say that "Hebrew thought" borrowed a lot of concepts from surrounding cultures seem remarkably immune to any borrowing of or synthesising with Greek thought. That old claim that Greek thought is purely speculative whereas Hebrew thought was down to earth completely ignores the fact that what Greek thinkers were concerned about was city life.

    I think there is another story to be examined, however: the story of pastoral theology. It is pastoral theology that gets some of the blame Hart dishes out, with Hauerwas also critical of this (relatively recent?) discipline. Peter Rollins may not like it (or maybe he would), but what he seems to be writing is pastoral theology for the masses. That is a genre of Christian literature that needs to receive far more critical attention than it has so far.

  3. Sorry for interrupting your suggestion for a re-examination of pastoral theology but just want to draw you back to the Impassibility of God. For sure the debate on suffering has been going on for centuries and am glad we still grapple with it today in our 'quest' for answers.
    Like Patrick lightly puts it, it depends what one means by impassibility. Those that hold the classical theism view of absolute sovereignty and immutability of God finds a biblical dilemma in making sense of various divine affections like love.The reverse (open theist)assumes impassability is obsolete and one that belongs only to the history.
    For me the doctrine of impassability should be handled with care for it is not only difficult but offers a slippery surface which we could easily slip. I hope this does not cause a digression from the main subject!

  4. Did Jesus really come to embrace brokenness in order to heal it? It's a fine line between this and a 'God who suffers with us' but I wonder if the latter makes more sense when remembering that Jesus walked past many needy people in the crowds, making room for the woman who touched his hem... but leaving aside many others. Surely to make sense of suffering we have to accept our fate of brokenness but for G-d's presence in the midst? I'm not a Rollins-ist at all, but I see his point here...

  5. I love this post inordinately. You are on fire at the moment Deco.

    I'm going to be a cocky bastard and say that the battle over impassibility is insufficiently theological(!) and that the Incarnation cuts the knot that people have imagined to be in play.

    But I've probably just not understood the problem. I am foolish enough to have Oliver Crisp's essays as my guiding lights here and he isn't nearly as edgy as Pete. :)

    But the comment-conversation so far is all about the first half of your post but what I am taken with is the second half. You use that movie scene beautifully to isolate one of the great problems with out faith - our church is simply not the body of Christ. We neither can raise the dead nor most of the time believe that the dead will be raised. Faffing about with bestselling philosopher advertised on glossy vimeo ads just likes more sophisticated seeker sensitivity to me...

  6. with "our" faith... maybe you can edit that nonsense for me and delete this comment?

  7. Thanks for all the comments! I've written and re-written several responses, but none have seemed adequate. I may just write a follow-up post once I've given things more thought.

    Kevin, are those Oliver Crisp essays available online?

  8. Even when Oliver writes about zombies, he ends up dealing with Reformed dogmatics. So, in other words, every O. Crisp essay you can get, online and off, will end up feeding into these very systematized theological questions.

    To answer your question, the paper in mind is one I heard delivered live at the Rutherford Conference in Edinburgh back in 2005 (?). Patrick was with me! I don't know if its online.